TOKYO—One of the images symbolizing Japan's postwar economic boom is a blue-and-white bullet train streaking past Mount Fuji on the world's first high-speed railway line, which went into service on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Half a century later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to use another leap in train technology to demonstrate that even after two decades of economic decline, Japan can still think big. The company that operates the original bullet train, linking Tokyo to Osaka, intends to build a new line that cuts the journey between the two cities to little more than an hour—less than half the current time.
This wouldn't be any old upgrade. At a projected cost of about $90 billion, it could be the world's most expensive railway line to date. And it would be the first intercity train to use a technology called magnetic levitation, or maglev, which lifts the cars several inches off a concrete track and whisks them along at more than 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles, per hour—nearly 200 kilometers per hour more than the fastest bullet train, or Shinkansen.
Now that several other countries, including China, have developed their own high-speed rail systems, "it is important for Japan to show leadership with a new kind of train," saidHiroo Ichikawa, a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo and author of a book titled "The True Reason Why the Maglev Will Transform Japan."
Magnetically levitated duck-billed trains already zip along a 27-mile test track west of Tokyo. EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
The project is widely expected to get a final go-ahead from Mr. Abe's government this year, with construction set to begin by early 2015. Mr. Abe said it could turn into one of Japan's next big exports. He has pitched the technology to President Barack Obama as a way to cut the New York-to-Washington train trip to an hour.
Yet not everyone in Japan shares his vision.
Critics say the new line is simply the latest in a series of white elephant infrastructure projects that were intended to prop up the Japanese economy during the long years of deflation. Because Japan's population is expected to fall to fewer than 100 million by midcentury from the current 127 million, they say, the only thing the maglev train will produce is empty seats.
"There are certainly doubts about whether demand for high-speed railways will increase in our country, where the population is projected to be halved toward the end of the 21st Century,'' wrote Reijiro Hashiyama, a visiting professor at Chiba University of Commerce, in an anti-maglev book.
'I think it's wonderful,' said U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy after riding the train with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the maglev test track near Tokyo in April. BLOOMBERG NEWS
Central Japan Railway Co., the publicly traded company developing the maglev train, projects that the new line will attract 88 million riders annually, with 72 million of them shifting from the existing Tokyo-Osaka high-speed line, which carries 143 million passengers a year.
To override critics' concerns, it intends to finance the new line itself, relying on cash flow from the existing Tokyo-Osaka Shinkansen, the world's busiest high-speed rail line, rather than taxpayer money.
But JR Central, as the company is known, won't be able to raise all the money at once, so it plans to build the maglev line in two phases.
The first section, from Tokyo to Nagoya, wouldn't be completed until 2027—seven years after a second Tokyo Olympics, a potential showcase for Japan's infrastructure and technology. And the second phase, from Nagoya to Osaka, would have to wait until 2045.
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Unlike the existing Shinkansen, which hugs the coast between Tokyo and Nagoya, the maglev route would run straight through the 3,000-meter (9,800-foot) Japanese Alps. About 90% of the line would run through tunnels, and environmentalists worry about the millions of cubic meters of dirt and rock that would be excavated.
"It should be considered the biggest environmental disaster or life-destroying project of the postwar era," said Kimie Asaka, a 64-year-old activist from Sagamihara, near Tokyo. She joined a group of protesters who took their concerns to the Environment Ministry in Tokyo last month, urging it step up its scrutiny of the plan.
JR Central, one of six companies formed in the 1987 privatization of the Japanese national railway system, says the choice of route stems from a 1973 government blueprint. The idea was to create a backup to the existing Shinkansen in case the coastal route got wiped out by an earthquake or tsunami.
As for the concern about Japan's demographic decline, Mr. Ichikawa of Meiji University says that is actually the best reason to build the maglev. The train would cover the 178 miles between Tokyo and Nagoya—nearly as long as the New York-to-Washington trip—in 40 minutes, saving an hour. The two cities would effectively meld into one metropolis, Mr. Ichikawa says, and boost the economy by combining Tokyo's financial might with the manufacturing prowess of the region around Nagoya, home to Toyota Motor Corp.
"In the future, Tokyo and Nagoya will be the main engines of growth," he said.
The maglev line, known as Chuo Shinkansen, could result in lucrative contracts for Japanese engineering firms like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon SharyoLtd., a subsidiary of JR Central, which have built the duck-billed trains that already zip along a 27-mile maglev test track near Tokyo.
The government also hopes to find foreign buyers. But Japan has had only limited success exporting its conventional high-speed trains, which top out at about 200 miles an hour—comparable to the fastest French or German trains.
For years, Japan raced against Germany to commercialize maglev technology. Germany's project, called Transrapid, was used for a 19-mile urban transit line in Shanghai that opened in 2004. Support for Transrapid waned after a 2006 crash on a test track in Germany.
In meetings with Mr. Obama, Mr. Abe has offered to help finance a New York-to-Washington maglev line and said Japan would provide the technology free of charge. JR Central has set up an office in Washington, which is working with a private company called Northeast Maglev to lobby for such a line. The company's advisory board includes former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and former New York Gov. George Pataki.
JR Central has demonstrated the technology to these and other luminaries. After riding the train in April in the company of Mr. Abe, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, declared: "Well, I think it's wonderful."
But analysts are skeptical of JR Central's sales efforts, especially in the U.S., which has yet to build a true high-speed rail line, let alone a system as ambitious and expensive as maglev.
Supporters of maglev technology say operating costs are lower than for high-speed trains—for instance, the absence of friction means a lot less wear and tear—but the upfront cost can be considerably higher, even without the cost of extensive tunneling as for the Tokyo-Osaka line.
"It's hard to see how they would monetize overseas sales of this technology,'' said Paul Wan, an analyst at brokerage firm CLSA.